“Life is the sum of all your choices.”
It’s a small group, in the big scheme of things. Not small as in elite, but small because there just aren’t that many of us out there. There is no gray area. Either you’re in the group, or you’re not.
The ex-Amish. And by that I don’t mean those who left and now remain with some sort of plain Beachy or Mennonite church. I mean those who, for their own reasons, have shed every vestige of plainness. The ones who, when you meet them, exude not a single clue of their background through dress, actions or speech. Completely “English.” The ones out in the “world,” who provide an endless supply of dramatic fodder for fiery Amish sermons.
For them, the Amish culture that birthed them is the road not taken.
A tremendously diverse group, almost all ex-Amish I’ve ever met express varying degrees of relief for the choices they’ve made. I can’t recall a single one who lamented the fact the he had left the Amish. Although many such stories were recounted in sermons I heard as a wide-eyed child. As dire warnings to any who might ever consider such an evil choice.
The sermon stories were all pretty much the same:
The old man stroked his short gray beard and his hand trembled as he reached into his pocket and withdrew a faded blue bandanna. His troubled gaze settled in the distance, far beyond the earnest young man standing before him. He blew his nose loudly. Then a tear trickled down his weathered cheeks. And another. He cleared his throat, unsure of his words.
“I’d like to return,” he finally said slowly, solemnly. “But you see, I can’t. Because of my family. My children have not stayed in the plain Beachy church I joined. Most are now in liberal churches and look and dress like the world. And why would they heed my warnings? I left the Amish church.”
The old man burst into tears. Great sobs wracked his body. “Oh, that I had never left,” he cried. “But now it’s too late. It’s a one-way street. I can never go back.”
The young man was shocked. This was not what he’d expected to hear. After a moment, he somberly thanked the old man. He untied his horse, got onto his buggy, and rattled off. He was very glad he’d asked for advice. He resolved not to make the same mistake. He would stay Amish. And be thankful and content.
I’ve often wondered if the stories were actually true or if the preachers just fabricated them. Who knows? They seem a little corny. The stories, that is. Not the preachers. Except for a few, maybe.
The great majority of ex-Amish are men, although an increasing number are women. It is substantially more difficult for a woman to leave than it is for men. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to make a living in “English” society.
The ex-Amish exist in every walk of life. Most work in the trades; builders, craftsmen. A few pursue education and professional lives. The one quality almost universally shared among them is the ability to work hard long hours, to forge ahead on their own, to expect no handouts.
It’s a tough road, to break away. Takes an enormous amount of discipline, determin-ation, inner strength and old fashioned grit. Very few actually get it done. Most don’t really want to, deep down. And don’t. They “settle down” or maybe move on to a more progressive church, where the foundational doctrines remain the same. Along with some plainness, a few shades less than the actual thing. Something to cling to from their past. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The ones who left chose to. They didn’t “escape.” They didn’t “flee.” Although some love to use those terms, I think they’re overly dramatic. They left. Broke away. Now they are where they are. And that’s it.
All are scarred, to some degree, by their experiences. All have stories. Of hardships. Abuse. Condemnation. Estrangement. Shunning.
They have stories of the good things too, such as they were. Of family, growing up and laboring in the fields. Of home, of mother’s cooking, of reading by lantern light in the cold winter nights.
Almost universally, those who left talk openly about their backgrounds and their jour-neys. The experiences that define them. Some are hostile, wounded and bitter. A few never really move on. Or get over it. They claim to, but they don’t.
Lancaster County has a few such ex-Amish. One, about my age, writes angry vicious letters to the editor upon occasion, criticizing all things Amish. Including their response to the 2006 school shootings. For thanking the cops for responding. How whacked is that? (He has a blog, but I won’t bother with a link. It gets few hits and fewer com-ments.) It’s gotten so that no one pays him much attention. And that’s kind of sad, because he does have valid perspectives. His bitterness overwhelms anything con-structive he might have to say.
Some write books. Tell-alls. Take whacks at the culture. And all the evil things. A few years back, a young Midwestern ex-Amish lady wrote such a book. Not particularly well written, it flared up, caused a little stir, then died. Guess the market’s a bit limited for such things.
Some are silent. Some are just laid back, content to live and let live.
In central Missouri, south of Clark, there is an ex-Amish reunion every summer. By authentic hard core ex-Amish. Attended by hundreds. My nephews from Iowa have attended frequently. Someday, I’d like to as well.
Whatever the personal experiences, some sort of bond remains, some sort of con-nection, between each such individual and his background. And among all ex-Amish to each other.
My point in all this? In a sense, just musings. In another, well, it bothers me at times when I hear virulent criticism of the Amish from those who emerged from the culture and then left it behind.
The Amish have their faults, heaven knows. I’m not blindly defending all they are or have been. I try to be honest in writing about my own experiences, many of which were very negative. But I deeply believe they have the right to exist as they do, to worship and live as they see fit. Even if it makes little sense to me, who’s been there, and no sense at all to most outsiders.
That’s not the point. Their “freedom to be” is.
It’s easy to blast their weaknesses. To emphasize their inconsistencies. To mock their old fashioned ideals. Their so 18th-century lifestyle. Their patriarchal family structures. Especially for those who’ve felt the sting of the lash and brutal rejection for not con-forming, not fitting in.
The Amish teach, subtly or blatantly, that those who are born Amish and leave will burn in hell. Fear of eternal damnation is a powerful, debilitating thing. I know the mental stress involved. I struggled with it for years.
A lot of ex-Amish still do. Many live in hopeless despair. Because they crossed that line, they figure, there are no more lines to cross. They live hard wild desperate lives.
My heart goes out to them. I want to grab them and shake them. Shout the truth. Being Amish will not cause you to be saved. Or lost (as many who leave and move on to more progressive churches piously like to claim, which is a subject for a future blog).
In my mid-twenties, I realized that one’s acceptance of and relationship with Christ is the only factor to salvation. And once I grasped and claimed that amazingly simple concept, I left. I have never looked back. (That’s about as much preaching as you’re ever going to read from me.)
Like most who leave, I harbored deep resentment toward the culture that had entrap-ped me so cruelly and senselessly for so many years. I wanted nothing to do with anything Amish. I scorned the culture and all it represented.
But something strange happened as the years passed. As I grew a bit older. I mellow-ed. Began to see the positive aspects of the culture. To realize there was a lot of value in the ancient traditions they clung to so tenaciously. Over time, my mellowness turned to acceptance. Then developed into quiet respect.
And that’s where I am today. A place of rest. Acceptance. Respect.
If I hear something silly or foolish that some Amishman said or did, I let it pass. Can’t judge a group by one person. Like I wouldn’t judge all Methodists because of some-thing silly or foolish a Methodist said or did.
I’m quick to rise to the defense of all things religiously or culturally Amish. Especially from outside criticism. It’s like your extended family. You can criticize your own family members, but by George, an outsider had better not.
The culture has it dark aspects. Most notably abuse in many forms. Including sexual abuse. A closed society whose secrets remain locked up. But great strides have been made in the last decade to deal with it. Counseling centers are sprouting in the larger communities to give help and hope to those who struggle from such issues in their pasts. For both perpetrators and victims. There’s one right here in Lancaster County, not a half mile from my house.
For a lot of ex-Amish, it’s not enough. Nothing good can come from Nazareth. The negatives must be highlighted and pounded until the culture changes to their liking. To how they think it should be. Which means the critics will be pounding for a long, long time. Because the Amish won’t change just to satisfy critics.
The Amish are who they are and I accept them as such. I’ve developed deep friend-ships with a few. I enjoy hanging out with them.
I have no regrets for the road I chose. I would never dream of returning. I alone am responsible for my choices.
I rarely wonder how life would have been on the road not taken.
He hasn’t commented in awhile. A few months at least. I’d wondered if maybe he’d quit reading my blogs. Uncle Jess, later known as Happy Grandpa Jess (after the birth of his first grandchild), seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. So I was relieved last week to hear that indeed my older brother is still alive and kicking. He’s been quiet because he’s been plotting his own blog. He launched it recently under the bold and rather audacious title of Wagler Wisdom.com.
So check it out. He has much wisdom and old fashioned advice to dispense. Leave a comment. Tell him I sent you.
I finally figured it out. From that old 1983 picture posted on last week’s blog. Why I was wearing a lined denim vest on such an obviously hot summer day. It’s because I wanted to hide my galluses and look as “English” as possible. Even back then. But the black hat kind of defeated that purpose. Either the galluses OR the black hat would have been OK. But combined, they were unbearable.
Tuesday’s front page headlines blazed the news. Levi Stoltzfoos (see June 27th blog) was sentenced to three consecutive prison terms for a possible total of up to fifteen years . The judge lectured him piously from the bench. I was so upset I had trouble sleeping that night. And so our country continues its downward spiral into lawlessness and the heavy-handed persecution and destruction of innocent lives.
Revolution slouches toward Gomorrah.Share